St. Mary's Abbey Wall

An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in City of York, Volume 2, the Defences. Originally published by Her Majesty's Stationery Office, London, 1972.

This free content was digitised by double rekeying. All rights reserved.


, 'St. Mary's Abbey Wall', in An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in City of York, Volume 2, the Defences, (London, 1972) pp. 160-173. British History Online [accessed 25 May 2024].

. "St. Mary's Abbey Wall", in An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in City of York, Volume 2, the Defences, (London, 1972) 160-173. British History Online, accessed May 25, 2024,

. "St. Mary's Abbey Wall", An Inventory of the Historical Monuments in City of York, Volume 2, the Defences, (London, 1972). 160-173. British History Online. Web. 25 May 2024,


The precinct wall of St. Mary's Abbey extends from the N. bank of the river Ouse at Marygate Landing along the whole length of Marygate to the junction with Bootham, a distance of about 410 yds. It then turns through a right angle and continues parallel to Bootham for about 170 yds. to a point a short distance N.W. of Bootham Bar, where it now ends. Originally it continued a little further towards the bar, turned to the S.W., and followed a course parallel to the city wall as far as the Ouse near Lendal Tower. This part of the precinct wall is now demolished, except for a short length immediately N.E. of the King's Manor and a fragment in the Museum Gardens not far from Lendal Tower. A wall bounding the abbey grounds on the S., parallel to the river, has been completely demolished.

The earliest surviving part in the circuit is the ruined fragment of the principal Gatehouse in Marygate. This can be dated on architectural grounds to the late 12th century. It is now reduced to the two side walls of the gate hall and the outer archway. Drawings made before demolition in the early 18th century show that, although the upper part had been considerably modified in the later Middle Ages, the original work apparently stood to a height of about 35 ft. (Pl. 54). The gatehouse was a substantial building, for the gate hall was 18 ft. wide and over 40 ft. long, and must have been flanked by ancillary buildings, since there are doorways, now blocked, through the side walls. Additions of the late 15th century have removed all traces of earlier attached structures. The gatehouse stands directly over the line of a Roman road, (fn. 1) which suggests that this route had been in continuous use and that therefore an entrance to the late 11th-century abbey may also have been on the site.

The earliest mention of the building of a stone wall around the precinct was during the abbacy of Simon de Warwick, in October 1260, when an enquiry concluded that 'to build a stone wall below the abbey of St. Mary as far as the infirmary of St. Leonard would strengthen and improve rather than damage the city of York'. (fn. 2) On 9 December of the same year the king granted permission to the abbot and convent to 'construct the said stone wall within their abbey up to the aforesaid infirmary according as shall seem most advantageous to them'. (fn. 3) The phrase 'up to the ... infirmary' of St. Leonard's Hospital must mean up to a point outside the city defences opposite the infirmary, which lay within the city wall but was probably visible above it. Work did not, however, start immediately, and in the meantime a dispute between the citizens and the abbey erupted into violence in August 1262, resulting in the killing and plundering of some of the abbey's tenants and the burning of houses in Bootham. (fn. 4)

The stone wall was started in 1266: 'Pridie Kal. Junis eiusdem anni inceptus est (murus) petrinus circuieni Abbatiam Sancte Marie Eboracensis, incipiens ab ecclesia Sancti Olaui et tendens versus portam civitatis eiusdem loci que vocatur GALMANLITH.' (fn. 5) The city gate called Galmanlith has been identified as Bootham Bar. The wall probably started from the gatehouse near St. Olave's church, since at that time the church, before the widening of the N. aisle, lay entirely within the precinct. The new wall faced towards Marygate and Bootham. The end of the length of wall parallel to Bootham has been demolished, but maps of the King's Manor estate made in 1770 and 1798 (fn. 6) show that it was about 36 ft. S.E. of the Postern Tower. It is significant that the part of the precinct first enclosed by a stone wall was the N.E. half.

The wall begun in 1266 was simply a boundary to the precinct and served no defensive function in a military sense. It is 2¾ ft. thick and with the original coping would have been generally over 11 ft. high. The outer side of the wall has wide pilaster-like buttresses of shallow projection, 9 ft. to 10 ft. high, irregularly spaced. Part of the wall along Marygate has buttresses also on the inner side, which is otherwise plain. The masonry is of magnesian limestone ashlar laid in courses about 1 ft. to 1¼ ft. deep; the surface had a diagonally claw-tooled finish now visible only in certain places where the wall has not been unduly exposed to the weather.

On 12 July 1318 a licence was granted to the abbot and convent to crenellate the abbey 'which is without the city of York, but is contiguous thereto, provided that the wall to be constructed between the abbey and the wall of the city shall not exceed 16 feet in height and shall not be crenellated'. (fn. 7) Crenellation involved the raising of the wall facing Marygate and Bootham by an additional 5 ft. to 6 ft.; the heightening was several inches narrower than the earlier wall below and was pierced by plain embrasures about 10 ft. apart and 2 ft. wide between merlons 3 ft. high. The embrasures could be closed by wooden shutters, for which L-shaped slots remain. Interval towers were added, the original wall being demolished to make way for their building, for they protruded on both sides. A new stone wall was also built facing Marygate S.W. of the gatehouse and extending as far as the river bank; it was also crenellated and terminated at the river in a tower. The wall on the S.E. side of the precinct was completed too as far as the Ouse.

The new towers inserted into the wall included a large round tower, internally octagonal, at the corner of Marygate and Bootham, now known as St. Mary's Tower, and another round tower with a hexagonal interior on the river bank at the S.W. end of Marygate. These two towers were built in c. 1324 when Stephen de Austewyk was sacrist of the abbey: 'et fieri fecit novam capellam S. Mariae, et novam turrim, et aliam juxta ripam Usae'. (fn. 8) Two smaller towers were built on the Bootham frontage, half-round and open at the gorge (though possibly closed by timber work) and semi-octagonal inside. A rectangular tower was inserted into the older Marygate wall; the probable reason for its unusual shape when other contemporary towers were rounded is that it contained a small postern doorway. In the lower part of Marygate the newer wall has two half-round interval towers. These have been much restored and so their exact original form is uncertain, but they were smaller than the intermediate towers on the Bootham side, and probably rose no higher than the adjoining precinct wall. (fn. 9) All the other towers added after 1318 were higher than the curtain wall and each had a first-floor room at the level of the wall walk and a crenellated parapet. On the lengths where the 13th-century wall was heightened a timber walk was built at about the level of the top of the earlier wall. None of this timber-work remains, but its former existence is clear from the doorways in the towers leading to it. This is seen most clearly in the half-round Towers D and E on the wall along Bootham. That part of the wall in Marygate S.W. of the gatehouse, which was entirely built after 1318, has a wall walk on the inner side formed by a thickening of the base of the wall.

The masonry of the early 14th-century work is also of magnesian limestone, though of a lighter and more creamy colour than that of 1266; the difference can be seen best in the longest of the stretches exposed along Bootham. It is generally of larger stones than the earlier work, with no obvious tooling marks and with narrower mortar joints. There are prominent masons' marks in some places (Fig. below).

Masons' Marks from St. Mary's Abbey Wall

On 24 June 1354 an agreement was concluded between the abbey and the city which was intended to settle their perennial dispute over Bootham. This provided 'that it shall be lawful for the abbot and convent to scour a dyke extending from the said Ronde Tour at the end of Seintemariegate towards the gate of the city called "Boothumbarre", which dyke is within the said suburb whenever they please, for the safety of their wall enclosing their abbey towards the great street of Bouthum and when the walls of the abbey need repair they shall have easement in the High Street there by the dykes and walls which extend from Seintemariegate to Bouthumbarre, to repair these at their will, and easement also in the place extending from Bouthumbarre to the Ouse, between the abbey walls and the city dyke, for such repairs'. The city would not build upon the abbey ditch along Bootham, and if the abbey did so 'with houses opening on the said street of Bouthum', the built-up area was to pass into the city's jurisdiction. Another provision was 'that it shall be lawful for the abbot and convent to make their wall on the said water (of Ouse) in the manner in which it has been commenced'. (fn. 10)

This river wall, already started in 1354, appears on maps by Speed (1610), Archer (c. 1682), and Horsley (1694), but not on that by Cussins (1722), or on subsequent maps. Speed shows it as crenellated, so does Place in an engraving of c. 1700 (fn. 11) in which it is shown as pierced by an archway with a path leading to the water's edge. No remains of this wall survive, nor is its course marked by any features on the ground. According to Drake 'the foundations of the wall which faced and ran parallel to the river were of late years dug up, which I myself saw run very deep in the ground, and all of Ashlar stone'. (fn. 12) As shown on the old maps it was close to, but clear of, the Hospitium, and joined the wall in Marygate about 18 ft. S.W. of Tower A. Wellbeloved claimed that there were two such walls 'built by Abbot Thomas de Malton in 1534 [sic., 1334 is intended]; the one proceeding from the tower at the end of the Abbeywall in Marygate, along the margin of the river till it met the Abbey-wall from near Bootham Bar, and the other parallel to it, near the Water-gate'. (fn. 13) None of the maps show a wall immediately by the river bank, although traces on the Water Tower suggest that a wall may have abutted against it. A 17th-century drawing shows a stump of wall here and a mid 19th-century photograph reveals that rubble core then exposed has since been replaced by a patch of facing stone. (fn. 14)

The next major work was the building of substantial additions to the main gatehouse. These additions, on both sides of the late Norman structure, are 15th-century in architectural character and have details in common with the N. aisle of St. Olave's church, dateable to c. 1470: they are therefore assigned to the same period. Little can be learned of the purpose of the extensive accommodation provided by these additions, because of the ruination of one part and the virtually complete internal rebuilding of the other. Traditionally associated with the gatehouse were a chapel of Our Lady by the Gate, founded in 1314 and restored in 1376, (fn. 15) and the courthouse and prison of the Liberty of St. Mary. (fn. 16) There was also a direct connection with St. Olave's church, which adjoined the gatehouse range on the N.E.

In 1497 a postern gate was made in the precinct wall near Bootham Bar. This is commonly called Queen Margaret's Arch, due to an erroneous belief that it was made for the convenience of Margaret Tudor, the daughter of Henry VII, who visited York on 13–15 July 1503 on her way to be married to King James IV of Scotland. Details of her visit are preserved in the city records. (fn. 17) There is, however, no doubt of the real date of the gateway. William Sever, Bishop of Carlisle and Abbot of St. Mary's, in a letter of April 1500 to the Mayor of York during a renewed dispute over building beside the precinct wall in Bootham wrote: 'when we brake our walle thre yeres past to make our postrone ... ther was founde at that tyme no contradiccion by any manner of evidence shewed ... by the said Maye ... and the I, with thadvice of my bredern anrd our Councell proceded furthe in makieing of our postrone and the toure ther, for the ease of us and our monasterye and honour of the same and for the strenghe and defence of the Citie'. (fn. 18) The Mayor's reply reveals that the reason given by the Abbot at the time of building was 'that the Kyngs good grace then in his noble viage toward Scotland wuld rest within your monastery and for his pleasure and passage to the mynster ye wuld make ye said posterne'. (fn. 19) The date is further confirmed by the fact that the work occurred during Thomas Gray's mayoralty (Feb. 1497–Feb. 1498). There may already have been a postern on this site, since 'Great Bootham with the curtilages, posterne and all appurtenances' is mentioned in 1350. (fn. 20) The new work probably supplied a need for better access to the abbot's house, which became the nucleus of the King's Manor. The postern and adjoining tower still remain in a relatively unaltered state. The tower is interesting for the use of brick on the interior faces of the walls.

After the dissolution of the abbey in 1539 the precinct walls probably remained unaltered for some time. The monastic buildings, and especially the abbot's house, were used as a royal palace, the seat of the Council in the North, and were extended and altered by successive Lords President. The earliest known plan of the city, made in c. 1545, (fn. 21) describes the former abbey as 'The Kinges Maner of Seynte Marys w[i]t[h]oute the Cittie Walle, Inclosede w[i]t[h] his owne Walls' and marks the main gateway, the postern, and the two round towers at either end of Marygate. Speed's plan of York of 1610 shows the complete circuit of the wall still standing. From about 1540 until the siege of 1644 St. Mary's Tower, then usually described as 'the round tower at St. Marygate end', was used to hold a large collection of records of Yorkshire monasteries made by officers of the Court of Augmentations and with an official keeper, appointed by the Crown. (fn. 22)

During the siege this side of the city was invested by the forces of the Earl of Manchester, who 'raised a battery against the mannor wall that lyed to the orchard; he begins to play with his cannon and throws down [a] peice of the Wall. We fall to work and make it up with earth and sods; this happned in the morning.' (fn. 23) The morning was that of Trinity Sunday, 16 June 1644, and the length of wall so damaged was probably near St. Mary's Tower. At noon on the same day the mine under the tower, on which work had started at least ten days before, was exploded with considerable effect. Many civilians were killed and the records were buried or destroyed. Part of the tower wall fell outwards and some 600 of the besiegers entered the former abbey grounds through the breach or by scaling the wall. They were, however, cut off by the Royalists, and after a skirmish in the orchard and bowling green about 300 were captured or killed. On the next morning the besiegers heard cries of 'Help' and 'Water, water' coming from the ruins of the tower, but were only able to dig out two people alive and one corpse before they were forced to stop by attacks from the city and 'were compelled to leave many poore distressed ones dying in the dust'. (fn. 24)

Many of the monastic records were rescued by Thomas Thompson, an official of the York diocese, and later in 1644 Roger Dodsworth and Charles Fairfax collected others from the debris. Some were restored to custody elsewhere in the abbey buildings and in 1762 passed into the possession of John Burton. They have since disappeared, apparently after 1840. The tower itself was rebuilt on approximately its former lines, using old materials, and with a conical tiled roof.

By c. 1682, when Archer drew his map of York, the whole of the side of the precinct wall along Bootham was built up with houses fronting on the street. One building already stood here in 1500, (fn. 25) and another was built near St. Mary's Tower in 1570, (fn. 26) but in 1608 this stretch could still be described as 'waste land lying along the walls of the late Monastery'. (fn. 27) By the end of the 18th century the side of the wall towards Marygate had been similarly concealed by houses fronting on the street. The gatehouse and its two flanking buildings were still standing substantially intact at the beginning of the century, when they were sketched by William Lodge, James Poole, and Francis Place (Pl. 54), but were soon afterwards demolished, except for the block to the S.W., now known as St. Mary's Lodge.

In the early 19th century the Yorkshire Philosophical Society gradually acquired the site of the abbey and its precinct and proceeded to lay out the area as ornamental gardens. A breach was, however, made in the wall beside the Postern in 1836, when a pedestrian arch was formed for additional access to the King's Manor, then used as schools. (fn. 28) In 1840, when St. Mary's Lodge was occupied by John Phillips, the keeper of the newly erected Yorkshire Museum, the building was thoroughly renovated for use as his residence. Later in the century, clearance of the houses fronting on Marygate began. The wall exposed by these demolitions was generally in poor condition and parts of it have been heavily restored. Of the houses built against the wall only one, No. 29, Marygate, now remains. Clearance of the houses fronting on Bootham started in 1896 and is as yet only partly completed.

In 1896 the City Council took over from the Yorkshire Philosophical Society the responsibility for the preservation and maintenance of the whole of the abbey wall. The wall was scheduled as an ancient monument in 1922. Threats in the City Council in 1908 and 1963 to demolish or resite the Postern (Queen Margaret's Arch) and by the Estates Committee in 1956 to allow the demolition of a length of wall in Marygate have so far been averted. After restoration in 1950–7 the precinct wall is generally in good condition.

Architectural Description. In the following account the wall is described in a clockwise direction starting at the W. angle of the precinct beside the river Ouse at Marygate Landing. Unless otherwise stated, all the masonry is of magnesian limestone.

Water Tower

Water Tower (Pl. 53, Fig. below) was built after the licence to crenellate of 1318, while Stephen de Austewyk was sacrist. It is circular outside but hexagonal inside and built of ashlar stone in courses about 1 ft. 4 ins. high. The upper part of the wall is set back slightly, the change being marked by a small chamfered weathering. A battered base towards the river has been concealed by the modern embankment. On the S.E. in the lower half of the wall are four stones in alternate courses cut so that they project as if to provide bonding for a wall running along the bank to the S.E. A patch of renewed facing stone with very narrow mortar joints has replaced a former area of rubble core. This wall which abutted on the tower was about 7 ft. thick, probably with a narrow parapet, and was possibly the revetment for a quay.

There are six openings in the tower wall, one corresponding to each side of the interior. Four of these are cruciform arrow slits with a round oillet to each arm, all in a damaged state; this form of loop occurs frequently in the early 14th-century work on the precinct wall. Facing S., directly over the patch of renewed facing where the river wall abutted the tower, is a rectangular opening, set a little higher than the arrow slits; this has a small chamfer all round and square sockets for iron bars in the jambs and lintel. To the N.E. where the precinct wall begins is a shoulder-headed doorway with a plain chamfer all round; this must originally have led to a wall walk, now destroyed.

Drawings made in the 17th century (Pl. 28) show that the tower was then crenellated, but the parapet is now broken down to below the level of the embrasures and is of irregular height. On the N.E., directly over the doorway just described, are the remains of a second doorway with chamfered jambs and also formerly shoulder-headed; (fn. 29) this can only have been accessible by a staircase from the wall walk. Two stone spouts draining the tower roof remain on the S. and E., and there is a hole for the same purpose on the W.

The inside (Pl. 53) had a floor supported on an offset. In the sides are deep recesses, some not centrally placed, leading to the six openings. The one leading to the doorway has splayed sides, but all the others have parallel walls sharply splayed at the ends. All these recesses have flat lintels carried on quadrant corbels. The tower was roofed behind the narrow parapet, leaving space for a walk on top of the wall.

The precinct wall from the Water Tower to St. Mary's Lodge is about 420 ft. long with three small changes in alignment. In origin this stretch is wholly early 14th-century work but has been much restored and partly reconstructed. Part of the wall immediately adjoining the Water Tower was removed in the early 19th century and replaced with a stone archway to provide access from Marygate to the riverside walk. This opening has a four-centred arch with a double splay to each side.

The wall as far as Tower A and for about 50 ft. beyond has been reduced in height and is now only about 7 ft., without crenellation. The lower part, of ashlar in large courses, including a few gritstone blocks, is original, but the upper two or three courses, of much smaller stones, are probably a replacement. On the inside the ground level within the Museum Gardens has been raised and only the upper 3 ft. of the wall is visible, all rebuilt in coarse rubble. There is an original postern doorway, now blocked, 4 ft. S.W. of Tower A. This is 2 ft. 8 ins. wide and 5 ft. 10 ins. high with a shouldered head and a small chamfer all round.

Tower A (NG 59775208), 120 ft. from the Water Tower, is semicircular, 10 ft. in diameter and projecting 5 ft. Outside the masonry is largely original. The inside is mostly filled with earth, but where the wall is visible it has been stripped of facing stone and repaired with rubble.

Tower B (NG 59815214), 215 ft. from Tower A and similar to it in size and plan, is entirely of new stone of the 19th century. It appears on Archer's map of c. 1682, but not on subsequent maps, and there is little doubt that it was wholly or partly demolished in about 1700 and rebuilt in the late 19th century, after the houses built up against the outside of the wall here had been removed.

St. Mary's Abbey: Sections through Wall to Marygate

The rest of the wall to St. Mary's Lodge stands to the original height of about 13 ft. It is 1 ft. 8 ins. thick, but 121 ft. N.E. of Tower A a wall walk 2 ft. 10 ins. wide begins, supported upon a thickening of the wall beneath. The walk gradually narrows to 1 ft. 7 ins. at a point 30 ft. S.W. of St. Mary's Lodge where it ends. Thence the wall has been rebuilt. The parapet has embrasures, which are mostly restored except for a few immediately S.W. of Tower B; these have L-shaped slots on the reveals, intended for housing wooden shutters, a feature which occurs elsewhere on the wall where the original embrasures have survived unrestored (Fig. above, (1)).

The length of wall immediately S.W. of St. Mary's Lodge was rebuilt when the Lodge was erected, and the moulded plinth of that building continues for 20 ft. along the outer face of the wall. There is an inserted 19th-century doorway in this length.

The Gatehouse (NG 59835216. Pls. 54, 55, Figs. pp. 166, 168). The group of buildings forming the gatehouse range consists of parts of the side walls of the late 12th-century gate hall, joined at the Marygate end by a large contemporary archway, and of additions on each side of those built in c. 1470, at the time of the rebuilding of the N. aisle of St. Olave's church. The addition to the S.W., known as St. Mary's Lodge, is complete, but that on the N.E., between the original gatehouse and the church, is ruined, only the outer walls of the ground floor surviving.

The gate hall is 18⅓ ft. wide and was probably a little over 40 ft. long; the wall on the S.W. side, which is the more complete, survives to this length, though rebuilt at the S.E. end. At the N.W. end of the passage is a round-headed archway, of three chamfered orders on the front and two on the rear; the mouldings of the impost caps continue as a string course along each side of the gate hall. Drawings made before demolition show that there was a similar archway at the S.E. end. There was also an intermediate archway, of which part of the N.E. jamb survives, which could be closed by doors.

The N.W. end of the gate hall beyond the intermediate archway was vaulted in one bay; springers of the vault survive in three angles of the bay, from which it appears to have had diagonal ribs only, and the two in the N.W. angles rose from vaulting shafts. The rest of the gate hall was vaulted in two bays, with heavy chamfered springers, probably of the 14th century, cutting across the moulded strings. Above the string course on the S.W. side enough of the original wallfacing survives to show that the transverse vaults were pointed. This same wall, which continues upwards to form one side of St. Mary's Lodge, was largely refaced in the 19th century, but the core is probably that of the original side wall of the late 12th-century gatehouse. At each end of the wall the thickness is represented by pilaster buttresses at the corners of the Lodge. The N.E. wall of the gate hall survives only to a height of 13 ft. and above the string is entirely refaced.

St. Mary's Abbey Gatehouse

Both side walls are decorated with original blind arcading, of two round arches in each bay, standing on paired shafts with moulded caps and bases of attic form. In the inner part of the gatehouse are two round-arched doorways to the S.W. and one to the N.E., each of these taking the place of one arched recess. All three doorways are now blocked with ashlar masonry, but one recess of the S.W. arcade has been opened up to make a doorway into the Lodge. An offset in the wall over the archway at the N.W. end of the gate hall probably marks the level of the original upper floor.

St. Mary's Lodge (Pl. 54; Fig. p. 168) is a two-storey building with basement. The walls, except on the N.E. side, are of ashlar with narrow joints, and the low-pitched roof is covered with lead and slates. The principal elevations are to the N.W. and S.E. and have moulded plinths and moulded strings at the upper floor level. The plinths have a moulding similar to that on the N. aisle of St. Olave's church. The N.E. elevation, originally built up against the 12th-century gatehouse, was refaced in the 19th century. The other three elevations are each divided into two bays by narrow buttresses of deep projection. At the W. angle is a large square buttress, only the top part of which conforms to the proportions of the others. The windows, one or two in each bay, are generally stone-mullioned and of two pointed cinque-foiled lights contained within a splayed rectangular reveal. They are considerably restored and some on the N.W. side have had the sills lowered in the 19th century. On the S.E. side there are also three narrow round-headed openings at different levels which light a staircase in the thickness of the wall. All the basement windows and all the windows on the S.W. elevation are of 1840. There has been some restoration of the external masonry, and an inserted chimney, later removed, accounts for a narrow strip of brickwork up most of the N.W. wall. A low stone parapet around the whole building was added in 1840. In the early 19th century there was a hipped tiled roof. (fn. 30)

The interior was modernised in 1840, and all the internal walls on the ground and first floors are probably of that date. The only original features visible are a chamfered ceiling beam in a basement room and the staircase to the first floor contained in the thickness of the S.E. wall: the latter has stone treads and an arched stone roof rising with the stair. A short flight of stairs from the entrance lobby to the inner hall has bulbous balusters of the late 17th century. The fittings of 1840 are in the Tudor style. There is a variety of fireplaces, but the doors are more uniform, and have tall, narrow panels. The ground-floor rooms have ceilings divided into square panels by moulded wooden ribs with carved bosses.

The building to the N.E. of the original gatehouse stands between it and St. Olave's church and is joined to both. It was built at the same time as St. Mary's Lodge, c. 1470, and was also of two storeys. It still stood intact in the early 18th century but is now ruined, lacking the walls of the upper storey, and the interior is partly occupied by modern structures.

The outer walls to the N.W. and S.E. have moulded plinths like those of St. Mary's Lodge, and on the S.E. side a short length of matching moulded string course survives. In the N.W. wall is a tall doorway 4 ft. wide and 9 ft. high with a two-centred arched head and chamfered jambs. The S.E. elevation, like that of St. Mary's Lodge, was divided into two bays by a narrow buttress, now mostly gone. There is one badly preserved two-light window and a small arched doorway with wave-moulded jambs, perhaps reset 14th-century work. From just inside the doorway a staircase ascends within the thickness of the wall; this stair has an arched stone roof like that in St. Mary's Lodge. Two stone corbels on the S.E. side mark the original first-floor level.

The N. aisle wall of St. Olave's church probably incorporates masonry of the precinct wall of 1266. This is visible internally below the window sills, but the exterior was refaced in c. 1470. The piece of wall so incorporated is about 30 ft. long.

To the N.E. of the church the circuit of the wall was interrupted by a building 74 ft. long and about 21 ft. wide which lay entirely on the N.W. side of the general line of the precinct wall. This building, which has been identified as the Almonry, probably dates from 1318, and the ground-floor walls of ashlar masonry survive on the S.W., N.W., and N.E., partly built over by a late 18th-century house (No. 29 Marygate). The maximum height of the wall above the pavement of Marygate is 11¼ ft. at the W. corner. It has a high chamfered plinth, interrupted on the S.W. by a doorway 3 ft. wide and 6¾ ft. high with a corbelled head. This doorway was defended by a portcullis, for which the wide slot remains, with rebates for a door behind; it is now blocked. The N.E. wall has a similar door, not so well preserved, visible in a cupboard opening off a ground-floor room in No. 29 Marygate. The N.W. wall has four tall narrow openings, each 6 ins. wide and now blocked with brick. In the corner of the S.W. wall against the church is a blocked window of two lights with cinque-foiled heads; though 14th-century, it is a later insertion into the wall of 1318 but antedates the aisle wall of the church, which is splayed back to clear it. The interior of this building has been filled with earth to form a raised garden for No. 29 Marygate.

The precinct wall of 1266 forms the core of the S.E. ground floor wall of No. 29 Marygate. From this house it then runs N.E. for a distance of about 250 ft. to Tower C and, after a small change of alignment, continues for a further 200 ft. to St. Mary's Tower.

The part of the wall up to Tower C has been much restored and only the last 45 ft. remain largely unaltered, with the wall of 1266 standing to a height of 11½ ft. and a crenellated parapet of 1318 superimposed upon it. The rest was extensively restored with new facing stone on the side towards Marygate, especially at the S.W. end, after the demolition of the houses built against it. Parts of the brick walls of these houses still stand on top of the mediaeval wall. The side towards St. Mary's Abbey is divided into three sections by straight joints, signifying rebuilding at various times. The N.E. half, basically the wall of 1266, has buttresses of two stages with weathered offsets and unusually placed here both inside and outside.

St. Mary's Lodge and St. Mary's Abbey Gatehouse

Tower C (NG 59945228. Pl. 56, Fig. p. 169) is rectangular and open at the back. It was originally higher than the adjacent precinct wall but has now been reduced to a height of 18¾ ft. It had a floor 11 ft. from the ground, supported on an offset, and a roof supported by a second offset 7 ft. 8 ins. higher. The walls are of ashlar masonry in courses generally over 1 ft. high. The four cruciform arrow slits, two in both the N.E. and S.W. walls and two in the N.W. wall, are of the type found elsewhere in the work of 1318; internally they have very widely splayed openings at first-floor level with joggled lintels. Survey drawings of 1952 show that before the restoration of that year the tower was a little higher and that the lowest parts of an upper tier of arrow slits then existed, one in each wall; these must have opened off the roof platform. In the S.W. wall of the tower is a blocked doorway, now visible only from the inside where the opening was 2¾ ft. wide. The outside at this point has been rebuilt in rubble masonry, but there is a tall slit, one side of which is possibly a jamb of the doorway. The precinct wall immediately to the S.W. has been removed for a modern gateway, but at the S. angle of the tower are bonding stones for the crenellated parapet of the wall.

The wall between Tower C and St. Mary's Tower is one of the best preserved parts of the enceinte; in places it has been carefully restored in recent years. It consists of the original 13th-century wall up to a height of 11 ft. with the crenellated parapet added in 1318, although the latter has been destroyed towards the N.E. end. The outer face originally had nine buttresses, not quite regularly spaced but averaging 22 ft. apart; they are now mostly robbed, leaving scars on the wall. Tooling marks are especially well preserved on the masonry of this stretch of wall. On the inner side are five large buttresses, irregularly spaced and not bonded into the wall, which were probably added for stability in the later Middle Ages. One of the wooden shutters has been restored in the fifth embrasure N.N.E. of Tower C (Fig. p. 165, (2)).

Tower C

St. Mary's Tower (Pl. 57, Fig. p. 170), at the N. angle of the precinct, was built in c. 1324 as a tall circular tower about 34 ft. in diameter, with thick walls and an octagonal interior of two storeys; the original height was over 30 ft. It is no doubt the new tower which the sacrist Stephen de Austewyk caused to be built. After part destruction in 1644 it was rebuilt, preserving the octagonal interior, but with thinner walls on the outer side, with the result that the reconstructed portion follows an irregular curve. When sketched by Place in c. 1715, the tower had a conical tiled roof resembling the present roof, but with a central finial. Lean-to brick and timber buildings which concealed much of the base of the tower were removed in 1896 and 1920.

The original part consists of the whole S. quadrant facing into the precinct and extends some distance outside the precinct wall towards Bootham. This original quadrant has a chamfered plinth and a doorway on the ground floor 4 ft. 8 ins. wide with a two-centred pointed arch. On the upper floor are two doorways which originally provided access to the wall walks along the Bootham and Marygate walls. The one opening on the Bootham side has a corbelled head and is placed a little above the level of the wall walk whence it must have been reached by a short wooden staircase. The other doorway appears to have been at about the same level as the Marygate wall walk; it has below it an area of rubble masonry which probably replaces a former corbelled support for the timber wall walk. The latter doorway has been altered at the top, probably from a corbelled head similar to the others which occur in the 14th-century work on the wall, to a straight lintel. The part of the wall facing Bootham has a cruciform arrow slit on the first floor.

The walling of the rebuilt quadrant was clumsily joined to the original work; on the W. the joint is marked by a strip several feet wide of exposed rubble core, and on the E. there is a setback. The masonry, generally of large squared stone, is of varying quality, a difference being most marked on the N.E. side where the lower half of the wall is well built, comparable to the work of 1318, but above is poorly laid; this may perhaps indicate rebuilding in two stages. The new wall is built of reused masonry, some being from the original tower, and incorporates on the ground floor a 15th-century window of two lights with pointed trefoiled heads; the latter probably comes from elsewhere in the abbey. On the first-floor are three windows facing N.; each one has a single mullion and transom with ovolo mouldings; these are reused dressings from a large bay window in the outer S.W. range of the King's Manor built in c. 1610–20 by the Lord President, Lord Sheffield, which was also ruined during the siege of 1644. A short length of fluted frieze and some of the masonry too is from the same source, all, including the windows, being cut to a sharper curve than that of the wall of the tower. Facing N. is a partly restored 17th-century doorway with a four-centred arch with key-block also perhaps from the King's Manor.

St. Mary's Tower

Inside, the octagonal room on the ground floor has in the S. wall the original doorway with a two-centred pointed rear arch. The wall in which the doorway is set and the two adjoining walls are of ashlar stone and original. Two other sides are partly of stone faced with 17th-century brickwork, and the rest, wholly rebuilt in the 17th century, are entirely faced with brick. Access to the first floor is by a 19th-century cast-iron newel stair.

The first floor, like the ground floor, has three original walls of stone on the S. and three 17th-century walls faced internally with brickwork on the N., the other sides being partly of each period. In each of the original walls is a wide recess, and the junctions with the rebuilt work show in straight joints which are the reveals of two other recesses. Each of the eight sides in the original tower probably had such a recess. Of the three which survive, two lead to the doorways giving access to the wall walks; the one to the Marygate side has a depressed pointed arch, the other to Bootham was higher, but the arch is now destroyed and only the springing survives. Leading from the second recess is a stone staircase rising within the wall thickness, originally to the parapet walk of the tower. The third recess has an arrow slit opening from it and contains a garderobe in one corner; the chute downwards is blocked, but there is an upward continuation in the wall thickness which must have been for another garderobe on the parapet walk. This third recess also lacks its original arch. The three 17th-century windows in the N. side of the tower have stone frames, but the reveals and sills are of brick. The roof construction is of the 19th century.

The precinct wall continues parallel to Bootham from St. Mary's Tower to the Postern Tower, a distance of about 435 ft., with a slight change of alignment about 98 ft. S.E. of St. Mary's Tower and with intermediate Towers D and E at distances of 147 ft. and 296 ft. respectively. The whole of this length consists of the wall of 1266 heightened in 1318; Towers D and E are entirely of the later date. Much of the outer side is obscured by 18th and 19th-century houses and shops, facing Bootham, which have been built up against the wall. One length of 100 ft. including Tower D was exposed in 1914, but otherwise only small parts are visible adjoining St. Mary's Tower and Tower E, uncovered in 1896; the latter tower is still half obscured. In the parts which are exposed the facing is poorly preserved and most of the buttresses have been robbed. The inner face of the wall is visible along the whole of this length. At a point about 120 ft. S.E. of St. Mary's Tower the courses in the 1266 work break bond, indicating perhaps a pause in the building of the wall.

The parapet between St. Mary's Tower and Tower E is unrestored, though damaged; some merlons have gone completely. In four of the merlons there are cruciform arrow slits with widely splayed reveals internally. Several embrasures immediately to the S.E. of Tower E are completely restored; nearer to the Postern Tower they are original but filled in by the rear walls of buildings facing Bootham.

Tower E

Towers D and E were equal in size and identical on plan, being half-round to the front facing Bootham, semi-octagonal inside and open at the rear and with two short projecting stub walls. They were of two storeys, roofed, with an open crenellated parapet walk. Tower D (NG 60025230. Pl. 58) is the less well preserved, although the curved front has been cleared of accretions. There are three cruciform arrow slits at first-floor level, all much damaged, and the parapet and side walls are greatly broken down. Tower E (NG 60065227. Pl. 58, Fig. p. 171) stands to its full original height, but the front is partly obscured and only one arrow slit is visible. The interior walls on the ground floor are plain, although each of the stub walls is splayed on the inner angle to a height of 5¼ ft. from the base. At first-floor level is an offset to provide seating for joists. There are three rectangular openings each for an arrow slit with splayed reveals and set in a shallow recess with a double-corbelled head. In the other two sides are doorways; these clearly indicate the former presence of timber wall walks; they have corbelled heads inside and joggled lintels externally, and the doors opened outwards from the tower. On the outside, just below the doorways, are small patches of brick infilling, probably representing the original sockets for the timbers of the wall walk. A second offset supported the roof. The parapet wall is much thinner than the walls below and is semicircular on plan internally as well as externally; in it are three plain embrasures, and on one merlon a very eroded pinnacle survives. This last is an unusual feature also occurring at Conway Castle, built in 1283–9.

Postern and Tower Bootham

Postern Tower (Pl. 59, Fig. below), built in 1497 together with the adjoining archway, is rectangular, projecting outside the line of the precinct wall. The walls are of brick faced with ashlar. Originally two storeys high, the tower was converted to three storeys, probably in the 17th century, by the insertion of a floor in the upper part. It stands 26¾ ft. high, excluding the hipped tiled roof which is probably of 17th-century origin. The N.W. wall is partly masked by a later building.

The N.E. wall has a moulded plinth, mostly modern restoration, which is continued on the S.E. wall, and a moulded eaves cornice, which is carried all round the tower. On the ground floor is a modern N.E. window of three lights, which replaces an 18th-century bay window shown in views by Price and Cattle of 1805 and by C. Dillon of c. 1840. Above, on the first floor, there was formerly a rectangular window of which no trace remains outside. In the S.E. wall is a doorway, partly restored since at one time it was partly blocked to form a window; it has boldly moulded jambs and a four-centred arched head with sunk spandrels under a moulded label and a four-centred brick rear arch. In the same wall on the first floor is a window with a four-centred head, sunk spandrels, and label, and just below the eaves is a small square window inserted in the 17th century. In the S.W. wall a doorway similar to that on the S.E. but with simpler mouldings has been partly filled in to form a window. Above it are two small rectangular windows, probably original.

Embrasure in Postorn Tower, Bootham.

The inside has one room on each floor. Access between them is by a narrow newel stair in the W. angle, brick-built, vaulted in brick, and reached through doorways with four-centred brick arches. In the N.W. wall and now only visible from inside the tower are blocked cruciform slits with large oillets at the ends of the arms (Fig. above), they are different in proportion from the loops in the 14th-century wall. They have widely splayed reveals and four-centred rear arches. There is a rear arch, probably for a similar opening, in the N.E. wall at first-floor level. The inserted second floor is reached by a modern timber staircase, and here in the S. corner are signs of an inserted chimney, subsequently removed. Padstones at the head of the walls no doubt supported beams of the original roof.

The Postern of 1497, popularly known as Queen Margaret's Arch, consists of a stone archway 10 ft. 7 ins. high with a segmental head; it is rebated for doors which opened inwards and is flanked internally by buttresses. Between it and the tower is a pedestrian way 7 ft. high with a corbelled head which was cut through the wall in 1836. The wall above these openings has a parapet with plain embrasures; one merlon is pierced by a slit. To the S.E. of the postern is a short length of the wall of 1266 with later heightening and including the remains of an external buttress. A bronze plaque set up on this wall in 1899 by the Yorkshire Philosophical Society perpetuates the misconception that the archway was made in 1503 for the use of Margaret Tudor.

A length of about 60 ft. of the precinct wall, aligned towards the S.W., now forming the boundary to a car park beside no. 6, St. Leonard's Place, begins about 200 ft. S.W. of the Postern. This wall, originally facing the city defences, retains a triangular coping 1¾ ft. high and three characteristic 13th-century buttresses on the outer side. It stands to a height of 7¾ ft. The continuation, deflected S., though also in magnesian limestone is of 19th-century date. The original line crossed the lane leading to the Museum Gardens beside the King's Manor, and two short fragments of the wall, only one course high, adjoin and are partly overbuilt by the S.E. wall of a wing of the King's Manor built by Lord Sheffield in c. 1610.

The only other fragment of the abbey wall on this side of the precinct is in the Museum Gardens, N. of Lendal Tower. It is about 15 ft. long, 2 ft. 8 ins. thick, and 6 ft. high, although largely obscured by the raised ground surface around it. There are no visible remains of the wall on the river side of the abbey grounds.


  • 1. RCHM, York City, 1, 2, no. 5.
  • 2. CIM, 1219–1307, 20, no. 255.
  • 3. Close Rolls 1259–61, 315.
  • 4. Surtees Soc., CXLVIII (1933), 6.
  • 5. ibid., 8.
  • 6. PRO, M.P.E., 344, 574.
  • 7. CPR, 1317–21, 190.
  • 8. Surtees Soc., cxlviii (1933), 136.
  • 9. A drawing by Place of c. 1680 shows one of these towers rising above the wall walk, with a cruciform arrow slit in the upper part (BM 1850.2.23.832).
  • 10. CPR, 1354–8, 84–6.
  • 11. Drake, 331.
  • 12. ibid., 577.
  • 13. YMH (1854), 20.
  • 14. BM 1850.2.23.832 and NBR, CC61/12; cf. Drake, 331, after Place.
  • 15. Raine, 266–7.
  • 16. Hargrove, iii, 591.
  • 17. YCR, ii, 184–9.
  • 18. YCR, ii, 149–50.
  • 19. B8, f. 84v.
  • 20. Widdrington, 123; CPR, 1348–50, 550.
  • 21. PRO, M.P.B., 49, 51; cf. YCR, IV, 63. RCHM, City of York III, Fig. 1, p. xxviii.
  • 22. YAJ, xlii (1968), 198–235; (1969), 358–86; (1970), 465–518.
  • 23. Slingsby, Diary, 109.
  • 24. S. Ash and W. Goode, A Continuation of True Intelligence ... from the 16th of June, to Wednesday the 10th of July 1644 (1644). For other references to this episode see YAJ, xlii (1968), 198–9, and L. P. Wenham The Great and Close Siege of York 1644 (1970), 57–74.
  • 25. YCR, ii, 147–63, 165–6, 169–73, 180–1.
  • 26. YCR, vii, 12; C93.1.
  • 27. York Herald, 21 Feb. 1857, 10.
  • 28. York Gazette, 26 March 1836.
  • 29. Cave, Pl. 28.
  • 30. Halfpenny, Pl. 30.